P-51D/K Mustangs Over the Third Reich

P-51D/K Mustangs Over the Third Reich

On 14th January 1945 the weather over the continent was unusual for the time of year: CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited).

The U.S. 8th Army Air Force (8th AF), recently freed from its involvement in fighting off the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes, took the opportunity to mount a major air raid against the heartland of Germany. A massive aerial armada of 911 four-engined bombers, escorted by 860 fighters, thundered on through the crystal-clear blue skies, five miles above the snow-covered landscape, bound for oil refineries and factories, highway bridges, and marshalling yards. The oil depot at Derben, located west of Berlin, where the Germans had reportedly stored 180,000 tons of fuel, was the target assigned to the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 13th Bomb Wing. The bombers’ escort consisted of 58 Mustangs of the 357th FG (Fighter Group), led by the unit’s CO, Col. Irwin H. Dregne. Twenty-two-year-old Capt. Leonard ‘Kit’ Carson, a flight leader with the 362nd FS (Fighter Squadron) was the group’s ranking ace. On that memorable day he flew his personal P-51K-5-NT (s/n 44-11622) coded “G4-C” and named Nooky Booky IV:
“We hadn’t been in escort position for more than 30 minutes when the enemy force was seen pulling condensation trails as it approached from Brandenburg. They were coming at us out of the sun at about 32,000 feet.

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Switch to internal tanks, punch the red button on top of the stick and watch them drop; 116 wing tanks streamed fuel into the stratosphere from their broken connections as a prelude to the clash. It was a reassuring sight to the crews and gunners in the Forts below. They knew we were spring-loaded and ready to go. Flick on your gun and camera switches. It all took five seconds.
The head-on rate of closure was fast. The opposing force numbered about 60 Me 109s flying at 32,000 feet as top cover for 60 Focke-Wulf 190s at 28,000 feet, which was the main attack group. The 190 group was spread out in the anticipated ‘company front’, flying six or eight abreast and several lines deep. Both fighter forces drove home the attack. We had not been pulling contrails at our altitude so they had no idea of our actual strength. The odds were 2:1 in favor of the Luftwaffe. My squadron and the one on the left flank met the FW 190s head-on. Col. Dregne attacked the Me 109s with his high squadron. Our position and timing were perfect but we couldn’t completely stop the first assault. Nothing but a brick wall could have.
‘Hot Shot Charlie’ (2/Lt. John F. Duncan, Carson’s wingman – author’s note) had kicked his Mustang about four wing spans out to my right where he could see me in his peripheral vision and watch the 190s come in. He was waiting for my first move. We both fired as we met them. Just a half second before the first wave passed, I hauled it around at full power in a steep, tight chandelle to reverse course and attack from the rear. At this point our three squadrons broke up into fighting pairs, a leader and a wingman. I closed to about 200 yards on a Focke-Wulf and fired a good burst, getting strikes all over the fuselage, and closed the range to about 50 yards. No long range gunnery here. Just shove all six guns up his butt, pull the trigger and watch him fly apart. I hit him again and he rolled to the right and peeled down and started a series of rolls that became more and more violent. He was smoking badly and the ship was obviously out of control. I pulled up and watched him fall. The pilot did not get out -in fact he didn’t even release his canopy.

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Duncan and I pulled back up toward the bombers when we saw another formation of 20 to 30 Focke-Wulfs to our rear. Another P-51 joined up so there were three of us. We turned 180 degrees into them; it was all we could do. Pure chance had put us on the spot. We fired head-on, but got no hits. I popped ‘maneuvering flaps’ and again, with full power, did the tightest chandelle with all the ‘g’ force I could stand, probably about five or six. I fired at about 300 yards, getting strikes on the nearest 190 that was turning into me. He headed into me violently but evidently pulled too hard on the stick in the turn and did a couple of high speed snap rolls and wound up on his back with his auxiliary fuselage fuel tank perched upwards against the horizon. While he was poised there I hit him with another burst, pieces came off the ship and he began boiling smoke. He split-essed and headed for the deck. I followed until he hit the sod at a shallow angle, bounced in a shower of dirt and crashed; again, the pilot never left the ship. I was by myself now, Duncan and the other Mustang having left to take care of their own fortunes. That’s the way it was in a massive dogfight such as this; it quickly broke down into 40 or 50 private battlegrounds. I learned later that Duncan was busily engaged in the destruction of two FW 190s in another corner of the sky.
I climbed back up to 14,000 feet when two Me 109s with barber pole stripes on the spinners came by beneath me. The reason for the stripes was that we were up against Jagdgeschwader 300 of the Reich Defense Force located around Berlin. Neither one saw me as I dropped to their rear and fired at the closest one. They dropped partial flaps and broke violently away from my line of fire. I used my excess speed to haul back up and regain my altitude advantage. The two enemy ships pulled into a tight Lufbery circle but I stayed out of it. I made a fast head-on pass at their defensive circle but got no hits. The bore of the cannon mounted in the center of the 109 spinner looked as big as a laundry tub in the brief instant that we met. The leader broke out of the circle and headed for the deck. I dropped down to engage tail-end Charlie as he too headed for the deck in a nearly vertical dive. All of a sudden he pulled it up into a climb and chopped his power, losing nearly all his speed. This was the old sucker trap maneuver that would put me in front, and him behind, in a firing position. I kept my excessive speed and firewalled the Merlin and started firing, closing the range down to 40 or 50 yards. I was so close that the 109 virtually blocked my vision through the windshield. I was getting hits all over the fuselage and as I pulled up vertically over him, a maneuver that he could not have followed at his low speed, his engine coolant system blew. Over my left shoulder I could see that he went into a tumbling spiral, out of control. Again, undoubtedly, the pilot was hit. So ended the engagement for me: two Focke-Wulf 190s and one Me 109 destroyed; 1050 rounds of ammo fired. Our group destroyed 57½ enemy aircraft; that’s an Air Force record that still stands today”.1
Indeed, on that day the pilots of the 357th FG were credited with 55.5 victories in the air (one shared with Mustangs of the 20th FG) and one on the ground (the group was not credited with the victory scored by Lt. Col. William C. Clark of the 66th Fighter Wing HQ although he flew with the 357th FG during the operation). The unit’s own losses amounted to four aircraft and three pilots (all three were taken prisoner). In the afternoon, a teletype message arrived at Leiston, the 357th FG’s home base, from Gen. James Doolittle, the CO of the 8th AF. It read: “You have given the Hun the most humiliating beating he has ever taken in the air”.
By the end of the war the 357th FG, commonly known as the ‘Yoxford Boys’, had scored more air victories than any other Mustang outfit in Europe. In April 1945 Leonard Carson, promoted to the rank of Major, assumed command of the 362nd FS. His final score was 18.5 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed in the air and 3.5 on the ground.

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Little Friends

The combat debut of American Mustangs in European airspace in December 1943 was a long-awaited turning point in the battle for air-superiority over the territory of the Third Reich2. The Mustangs excelled as long-range escort fighters – bomber crews commonly referred to them as “little friends”. The USAAF commenced its daylight bomber offensive as early as August 1942. The ensuing losses, suffered by the unescorted heavy bombers of both U.S. strategic air forces – the 8th AF operating from England and the Italy-based (from November 1943) 15th AF – were deemed unacceptable. Even worse, the destruction of the Luftwaffe’s resources through the bombing of German aviation industry centres – the objective of operation “Pointblank” – proved unfeasible. The Germans had effectively dispersed their aircraft production. The number of fighters assembled in Germany had actually increased: production tripled from spring 1944 up until the year’s end; in the month of September it reached a record of 3,000 aircraft. It became clear that the Jagdwaffe – the fighter arm of the Luftwaffe – could only be destroyed in the air by being goaded into a series of decisive battles. This task was bestowed upon the escort fighters, with the bombers acting as bait. It was easier said than done, however. The Jagdwaffe had begun to withdraw its units into the Reich’s territory, far beyond the range of most allied fighters. In fact, the superb performance and combat radius of the P-51 made it practically the only fighter in the Allies’ inventory capable of suppressing the German fighter force over its own turf.

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In spring 1944, new, 108-gallon disposable fuel tanks became available. When rigged to carry them, the heavily loaded Mustangs (one full tank weighed 700 pounds) had a combat range of about 1,000 miles. This was enough to take off from England and land at the other end of Europe. This was proved in summer 1944, when the 8th AF began to fly shuttle missions to Ukraine in the Soviet Union. The Germans recognized the threat posed by the American strategic air offensive and began to bolster their homeland defences by withdrawing fighter units and some of their best pilots from other theatres. In March 1944 the 8th AF launched a series of bombing raids against Berlin and in mid-May switched its major effort to the oil industry; the air war over Germany was reaching its climax.
After the start of the allied invasion of Normandy on 6th June 1944, all RAF and USAAF air units stationed in England (some 3,000 fighters alone) – including the Mustangs of the 8th AF – were deployed over France. At the same time, the 15th AF staged several raids against targets along the southern flank of the Third Reich in an effort to tie up some of the German fighter force. These missions were particularly tough, since the 15th AF had not only to fight its way through a screen of German and Italian interceptors stationed in northern Italy, but also to face the Luftwaffe’s Reichsverteidigung (Reich Defence) units over the target area. This meant the escorting Mustangs often had to engage the enemy much earlier than expected – and in the process dispose of their drop tanks. This occurred on 9th June 1944, when some 500 Liberators and Flying Fortresses set off for the Oberpfaffenhofen and Weßling airfields near Munich. For the 31st and 52nd FGs, which had converted to Mustangs in April of the same year, it was their first foray over Germany. Whilst the 31st FG met no opposition in the air, the 52nd FG got more action than it had bargained for. The group was scheduled to pick up the bombers near Traunstein in Bavaria before shepherding them to the target. However, over Udine in Italy the 52nd FG chanced upon a box of B-24s being harassed by a swarm of enemy fighters (some from JG 77). 16 of the 55 machines dispatched by the 52nd FG that day immediately jettisoned their long-range tanks and hurried to the rescue. The remaining 39 pressed on, and over the target area had to slug it out with a bunch of single– and twin-engined fighters (of JG 302 and ZG 1, respectively). The day’s fighting yielded 15 ‘destroyed’ credits for the 52nd FG, without a single loss being incurred. This was quite a remarkable feat for a 15th AF unit, as they rarely engaged in the massive air battles fought by the 8th AF over western Europe.
A week later, on 17th June 1944, the first P-51Ds arrived at the 31st FG’s base at San Severo, Italy. Over the next few weeks an increasing number of them were ferried from North Africa. The first fighter squadron of the 15th AF equipped with the D model was the 307th FS of the 31st FG.

 

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Enter the P-51D

Although the success of the P-51B/C model in the role of ‘long-range escort fighter’ was indisputable, the first few months of its operational service revealed several issues – a common situation for an early production series. The most alarming faults concerned the wing-mounted guns (which became notorious for jamming), various oil and coolant leaks, and rough running of the engines. Furthermore, visibility from the cockpit was notably poor. However, North American Aviation, the company that designed and produced the Mustang, was already working on a successor to the P-51B/C. It was designated the P-51D.
One of the production P-51Bs (s/n 43-12102) was pulled from the assembly line and rebuilt with a lowered fuselage spine aft of the cockpit. The modified rear fuselage allowed the installation of a Perspex frameless hood, which slid to the rear on rails (unlike the hinged canopy of the original P-51B/C, which opened sideways). The new teardrop-shaped, ‘bubble’ canopy offered an unparalleled all-round view from the cockpit. The modified Mustang made its first flight at Inglewood on 17th November 1943, with Bob Chilton, the chief test-pilot of the NAA, at the controls. On later production variants (starting with the P‑51D-10-NA) a dorsal fin was fitted just ahead of the rudder to compensate for the slight loss of directional stability that resulted from the reduced aft keel area. The dorsal fin fillet was also retrofitted to operational aircraft as a field modification kit. Metal elevators were added in February 1945. The P-51D continued to have a fabric rudder. When equipped with 108-gallon drop tanks, the gross weight of the P-51D reached 11,600 lb.

 

 

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